Indian government encroachment on academic autonomy is spreading

Resignations from the Australia India Institute suggest that politicisation of university management is not confined to the mainland, says Mukhtar Ahmad

May 7, 2022
Hands with Australian and Indian flags locked together
Source: iStock

India’s new National Education Policy, announced in 2020, was billed as giving more autonomy to the country’s higher education institutions. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the expectations it raised will not be fulfilled.

One example is the appointment of university leaders. The government’s “forward-looking vision” for higher education failed to stipulate that the people it appoints to run institutions must have an impeccable record of moral integrity and honesty, as well as having achieved the highest academic excellence. And, on the ground, the appointment of vice-chancellors has become so politicised that some state governments are embroiled in a tug-of-war with the governors appointed by the union government over who has the authority to make the final decisions. Recently, the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra have decided to take the power away from governors. Amid such politicisation, it is almost impossible to find candidates who have been selected solely on the basis of merit.

More generally, the past few years have seen an increased number of encroachments on academic freedom by the Indian government, with many instances where the government has used coercive methods to silence critics of its policies. And now, it seems, the government is even seeking to exercise its influence beyond India’s shores.

At the end of March, 13 “affiliated fellows” of the University of Melbourne-based Australia India Institute (AII) resigned their positions, alleging meddling in the affairs of the institute by the Indian High Commissioner to Australia.

The AII was set up in 2009 with a grant of A$8 million (£4.6 million) from the Australian government. Its purpose was to “engage and gain a greater understanding of the two countries through various streams of academic research” at a time when hate crimes were occurring against Indians in Melbourne. Still funded by the Australian and Victorian governments, it brings together scholars from across various disciplines and universities, some of whom are resident at the institute.

In their letter of 29 March, the resigning fellows claimed, among other things, that there had been repeated instances where research or views that are unflattering to the image of India had been blanked, at the behest of the Indian High Commissioner. For instance, a planned public event in 2019 to discuss the ongoing violence by Hindutva groups against Muslims and other minorities in India was allegedly downgraded into a private, invite-only seminar.

In another example, the institute allegedly refused to host on its website a podcast claiming that, seven decades after India passed laws to fight discrimination, the caste system remains alive and thriving, both in India and in its global diaspora.

The letter also reportedly claimed that when the AII website was relaunched in March, the names of several academics were missing. One of the academics was allegedly told by the institute, for unspecified reasons, that it no longer wished to be affiliated with them.

The letter signatories also said they and others had previously expressed concerns in a 2020 letter to Melbourne’s deputy vice-chancellor (international), Michael Wesley, that the AII was being oriented “around the bilateral inter-governmental Australian Indian relationship”. They urged it instead to “fully embrace the value of promoting Australian scholarly engagement with a broad cross-section of Indian universities, schools, NGOs, the media, artists and others in conformity with the values of the University of Melbourne”.

These allegations also raise questions for Melbourne, of course. In a statement, it said academic freedom and freedom of speech were “central to our core values and identity. The university has been working on strengthening our policies in this area for the past two years and take any allegations of this nature very seriously.” It added that the university remains “deeply committed to growing and building our ties with India”.

The Indian High Commission declined to comment.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, it adds to the impression that while the Indian government may pay lip service to academic freedom, in practice it has little tolerance for the autonomy of those who oppose it. As well as its power over appointments, the government can and does exert control over Indian universities through funding, regulation, admissions policy and syllabi approval. These are all supposed to be overseen by buffer agencies, such as the University Grants Commission, but the government seems intent on trying to exert direct control over all these functions.

If the BJP is now intent on controlling how India is taught and researched even in overseas universities, then even moving abroad may not afford Indian academics the freedom they need and deserve.

Mukhtar Ahmad is former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, India.

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Reader's comments (3)

The fact of the matter is that in terms of social mobility, economics, politics, and freedom of expression are all on the decline, thanks to the BJP. Whatever reputation India has built up since independence is eroding fast.
I completely reject the hypothesis in this article about the decline in India's reputation. The only major shift has been the change in the narrative propagated by a party called Congress that ruled India for more than 50 years. During the Congress' reign, medieval history was completely twisted and the heritage of the ancient India of Yoga and Vedanta was put on backstage in order to subscribe to a purely artificial view of secularism. Now, India is trying to regain the past ancient glory but that is not palatable to some. It does not matter however in the long run as the majority of Indians are realizing their roots and heritage deliberately obfuscated in the past.
A politically motivated and loaded piece. Period!